CAPE CANAVERAL, MARCH 13, 2012 – Space Shuttle Discovery, the oldest and most distinguished orbiter in the NASA shuttle fleet, has finished preparations for its final trip to The Smithsonian Institution’s National Air & Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, VA. I was given access to the orbiter on its final day of preparations before being closed out for good.
The shuttle, wrapped around a massive structure of scaffolding, sat inside Orbiter Processing Facility Bay 1 (OFP-1) for final inspection and modifications before its ferry flight to DC. The last remaining tasks before closeout involved detail work inside the rear of the space craft. Where the three engines would normally be exposed are now covered by a white tail cone, a sign of the ferry flight soon to come.
It will be no easy task to ferry the shuttles to their final destinations. Typically, any ferry flights that occurred during the 30 year span of the shuttle program came from California to Florida. For Discovery, it will mate at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center and demate at Dulles International Airport in Virginia.
Jim Jeffers, a United Space Alliance Employee (USA) working on Demating Operations spoke about the process. “Typically, we would remove a shuttle from the aircraft and lower it for service at the OPF. Now, we’re working in reverse.” The shuttle will be raised by a special purpose crane, built specifically for demating an orbiter from and aircraft. The specificity in positioning the orbiter is key, with the mating device allowing workers to control the cargo from any axis. “We have the ability to control any angle of the vehicle to properly mate it to the aircraft, allowing us to adjust by fractions as we lower it in place.”
Once Discovery has landed at Dulles, the task becomes more difficult. “While we’re using a device built specifically for Shuttle demate in Florida, we’re using portable cranes out at the runway in Dulles,” said Jeffers. The process proves more difficult and will require a team of up to 40 employees working to ensure it is lifted and lowered into place carefully and successfully. When asked how long the demate will take, Jeffers said “I expect the job will take between 2-3 days to complete as we don’t have a crew to work around the clock.”
While Discovery is scheduled to depart Florida on April 17th, weather may play a factor in the final flight. While the vehicles were weather tight while on the launch pad, they are no longer due to a special coating applied to the exterior before each launch. If in flight, rain could damage to some of the shuttle exterior tiles and run the risk or ruining or damaging parts of the outer shell. Additionally, the tiles act much like a sponge; when dry they are extremely light, but add water and the weight increases substantially. The vehicle itself weighs about 180,000 lbs and would increase substantially if wet.
Discovery will do a fly-over of several landmarks in DC prior to landing, although those locations have at this time not been released. When it does lands, The Smithsonian has planned a massive celebration to say farewell to Shuttle Enterprise, the test flight shuttle featured currently at the Udvar-Hazy center, and to welcome Shuttle Discovery.
Additionally, 30 social media followers of NASA and The Smithsonian will participate in a social media event based off of the NASA Tweetup model. Titled “Discovery Social,” the group will tour the facility; speak with museum curators, NASA scientists and engineers; and will have the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity of viewing and photographing space shuttles Enterprise and Discovery together.
For more information of The Smithsonian’s plans, visit http://discovery.si.edu.
History of Shuttle Discovery
Discovery holds a very long list of records and milestones. Upon final touchdown last March, the orbiter spent 365 days in space and traveled a grand total of 148,221,675 miles. Some other historic milestones include:
- 1984: First non-astronaut to fly on space shuttle, Charles Walker
- 1985: Flown aboard Discovery: Senator Edwin “Jake” Garn
- 1988: Served as Return-to-Flight vehicle after Challenger tragedy
- 1989: Flown by first African American commander, Frederick Gregory
- 1990: Deployed Hubble Space Telescope
- 1995: Flown aboard Discovery: Mercury 7 Astronaut & US Senator John Glenn
- 1995: Piloted by first female spacecraft pilot, Eileen Collins
- 1997: Serviced Hubble Space Telescope
- 1998: Made final docking visit to Mir space station
- 1999: Serviced Hubble Space Telescope
- 1999: Made first docking with International Space Station
- 1999-2011: Delivered trusses, Harmony node, Kibo laboratory module, Robonaut2, Leonardo module, and tons of supplies to International Space Station
- 2005: Served as Return-to-Flight vehicle after Columbia tragedy
- 2005: Flown by female commander, Eileen Collins
- 2006: Flown by female commander, Pamela Melroy
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